A Short Stay In Hell

by Steven L. Peck

Reviewed by Adam Armstrong


There is much talk about forever and eternity. With love songs and chick-flicks aside, a large portion of religions has something to say on the matter of eternity. Most people go through life accepting that they will just go on indefinitely, we have no other way to look at things. But people don't often stop and ask what forever means. Steven L. Peck is someone who has taken a stab at the concept, and after reading A Short Stay In Hell you won't be able to stop thinking about it.

Soren Johansson was a good Mormon and did everything he thought was correct in life. He was surprised to find himself in hell when he died. He finds that he didn't worship the one true religion (Zoroastrianism in the novel), and now he is cast into a hell by a god he has never heard of. But hell isn't forever; it is a test. In Soren's case he is tossed into a giant library. The library is the same as The Library Of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges: the library contains every book that has ever been written and every book that could ever be written. To get out all he has to do is find the book that contains his life story. But as Soren discovers how many books there are, he realizes that forever is much shorter than the time it will take him to find the right book.

This very short novel is extremely impressive. Told in a very formal and detached manner, we are shown a hell that is as familiar as it is horrifying. The target audience (of any novel really) is avid book readers. It is interesting to present something that seems delightful, even heavenly, as a library in such a horrific manner. The most convincing aspect of the novel is the narrator's acceptance of it all. He never stops to question the reality of what is happening; instead he learns the rules and develops relationships with others trapped with him.

Peck is good enough to know that as fascinating as his premise is, he needed to add extra amounts of drama to keep the reader's interest. Peck explores concepts like having a relationship for hundreds of years, having suicidal thoughts and actions (when every time you die you are just reborn the following day), and what horrible things people can do to each other given enough time. The cult that crops up in the novel seems less surprising than expected. What is interesting is the fact that if you are reborn in perfect health every morning, there is a limitless amount of physical torture that can be done to those the cult captures. 

The greatest thing any novel can do is to resonate with the reader. A Short Stay In Hell will stay with you for a long time after reading it. The book is only a little over a hundred pages yet it spans the course of 160 billion years. And at the end of reading it you'll have a better understanding of forever, and maybe even a fear of it.